Sunday, October 31, 2010

Can You Hear Me Now?

A few of my blogging friends in the autism community will be silent tomorrow, in the name of supporting Communication Shutdown.  It's an initiative that encourages people to stay off of social networks such as Facebook and Twitter and blogs for one day in order to show what everyday life is like for many people with autism who have difficulty communicating. 

I understand the thought behind this (kind of) and I absolutely 100% support those who are participating

I've just chosen not to be among them. 

I'm not sure how my not going on Facebook or Twitter or blogging would draw attention to this issue - but I truly respect and understand those who feel that doing so can. To me, it feels too much like hiding.

You see, even though I use pseudonyms for my kids, it took a long, long time for me to become comfortable with the idea of talking about how Boo's autism diagnosis has impacted and changed our family (and continues to do so).   One of the reasons I started this blog two years ago was to share the day-to-day happenings with relatives and friends "back home" and elsewhere.  But I also had a hidden agenda.  I also wanted to share with them what life was really like raising a child with autism and his twin sister who is becoming a little more self-conscious and aware of her brother's issues. I wanted there to be some understanding behind the "he's doing great!" sentiments that family members would share on special occasions - that, yes, he is doing great (most days) but ....But.

I took my inspiration from Susan Senator and then from MOM-NOS, two of the first "autism mom" bloggers I read way back in the early black hole days of life following diagnosis.  It would still be several years before I decided to start a blog about our own experiences.  And in doing so, I found this community of other kindred souls and people I've come to call my velveteen friends. 

These are days I can't remain silent.  We're having a bit of a tough time behaviorally with Boo, with Halloween being the latest freakin' nightmare (when he wasn't talking gibberish or baby talk, he was yelling way too loudly and nearly running into the streets; he criticized neighbors' candy offerings with rude "I don't like these!"; he departed several houses by wishing the occupants a Happy Hanukkah and attracted more than a few stares, along with bedtime questions from Betty about what she should say if her friends say something tomorrow about Boo's strange behavior). 

I wasn't prepared for this because while his behavior has always been slightly quirky on Halloween (for two years straight he walked up to each house, notepad and pencil in hand, and asked each occupant their name as if he was a census-taker), he's never been like this. 

I can't remain silent today or tomorrow - about this or anything else - because if I do, then maybe that prevents someone who also had a hellacious Halloween or is going through a rough time to hear that there is someone else who is going through something similar.  And if you stay silent today or tomorrow, then I can't hear from you what I need to hear:  that we're doing the best we can, that you've been there too, that you are there.

I can't remain silent because I fear it would be a little like hiding.  And once you decide to stay in bed for one day, it's easier to justify doing the same for the next day.

It's especially interesting to see how this whole Communication Shutdown thing is playing out in the autism community.  There's no hatriolic vitriol being spewed by the differing sides, which is mighty refreshing. We're fine with those who are participating and we're fine with those of us who aren't. Live and let live, peaceloveandunderstanding, agree to disagree, and all that good stuff.  It's a lesson that more people should take notice of and take to heart. 

Accepting others' differences and other people's choices.  Maybe that's an unintentional byproduct of the day, and if so, I'll take it. 

I hope Communication Shutdown does succeed in bringing awareness and funds to those with autism. The more of both, the better. I'm glad they are doing this and I'm glad it has attracted such interest.

And if you're participating in Communication Shutdown, I'm glad you're doing so ... and I'm even more glad that it is just for one day.

Because your voice is just too valuable and important to lose.

copyright 2010, Melissa (Betty and Boo's Mommy, The Betty and Boo Chronicles) If you are reading this on a blog or website other than The Betty and Boo Chronicles or via a feedreader, this content has been stolen and used without permission.

The Sunday Salon: Some Frightfully Good Reads

There are times when one's reading races along like fallen leaves tumbling down the street by gusty autumn winds. That's the kind of reading month I've had in October.  I've finished three short story collections, three novels, two poetry collections, two audiobooks, a nonfiction book, and one collection of letters.

That might seem paltry compared to other book bloggers, but for me it represents a great reading month.  The read-a-thon had something to do with that, in a good way. Still, it has left me wanting to sink my teeth into a chunkster kind of book, maybe something a little spooky to coincide with Halloween and the dark evenings that will befall us next weekend when we turn back the clocks. 

Earlier this week I turned to The Little Stranger by Sarah Waters, which I know many of you have already read.  (And truthfully, this might not have been one I would have picked up if it wasn't for book bloggers. I'm not a mystery novel kind of girl, but this one was intriguing and thus far (80 pages into it), I'm enjoying it ... while starting to get slightly impatient for something to happen.  From what I've read of your reviews, something will ... and I'll find myself with yet another bout of insomnia to complement the ones I've already been dealing with. 

Before picking up The Little Stranger, I finished Amy Bloom's first short story collection, Come to Me.  Twelve stories comprise this collection, and several of them are connected to each other.  It's a brilliant way of showing the perspective of several characters within the same incident as well as at different times of their lives.  It's similar to the effect of Olive Kitteridge, only on a more abbreviated scale. Still, I think that these stories - particularly the related ones - would satisfy those who resist short stories because of not getting to know the characters well enough.  These seem almost novella-ish. 
Audiobook-wise, I finished Judith Warner's We've Got Issues: Children and Parents in the Age of Medication.  It sounds kind of odd to say that I liked this one, but it was simultaneously comforting and sobering. Listening to the personal stories from parents was like having a support group in my car.  It is also incredibly well-researched and detailed. From an audiobook production standpoint, Kirsten Potter's narration was absolutely perfect.  She might just be my favorite audiobook narrator, now that I am paying more attention to such things.  Her tone - and the emotion within it while telling the families' stories - was exactly right.  

On Friday, I started listening to Half the Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide. Talk about sobering.  I've been a fan of Nicholas Kristof's for awhile now, and I knew enough about this book before pressing play, but that still doesn't prepare one for these heartwrenching stories of sex trafficking shared by Kristof and his wife, Sheryl WuDunn.  I'm only up to the second CD (page 42 in the print edition, which I purchased earlier this year) and honestly, there was one point where I wasn't sure if I could continue with this.  I think it is because my daughter is not too far removed in age from the countless girls sold as sex slaves throughout the world. 

And that is exactly the reason why Half the Sky is such an important book.  Everyone should read this. 

Two more books to mention this week.  I love Billy Collins's poems, and recently picked up Questions About Angels at the library.  In my opinion, this is one of his best collections yet.  Many of these poems made me smile, made me wonder, made me love Billy Collins even more.  I think this is one that I would like to own. 

Finally, Only in New York: An Exploration of the World's Most Fascinating, Frustrating, and Irrepressible City is going back to the library as a DNF.  There wasn't anything wrong with this collection except that I don't think I, a native Philadelphian, am the right reader for it.  According to the jacket, Only in New York consists of "more than seventy self-contained essays about what makes New York tick and why things are the way they are in the greatest city on earth."  Make no mistake: I love New York and am fascinated by New York.  It's just that Only in New York didn't quite grab my interest and attention as much as I thought it would.  Folks who hail from New York or live there would probably appreciate this more than I did. 

Now, off to spend some time with The Little Stranger before taking my Scarlet Knight and Cowgirl out among all the little strangers this evening. 

Books Finished in October (links take you to my reviews):

The Early Stories of Louisa May Alcott 1852-1860
The Blind Contessa's New Machine, by Carey Wallace
Lay Back the Darkness, Poems by Edward Hirsch
Little Billy's Letters: An Incorrigible Inner Child's Correspondance with the Famous, Infamous, and Just Plain Bewildered, by Bill Geerhart
American Music, by Jane Mendelsohn
Lullabies for Little Criminals, by Heather O'Neill
Come to Me, Stories by Amy Bloom
We've Got Issues: Children and Parents in the Age of Medication, by Judith Warner (audio)
Questions About Angels, Poems by Billy Collins

copyright 2010, Melissa (Betty and Boo's Mommy, The Betty and Boo Chronicles) If you are reading this on a blog or website other than The Betty and Boo Chronicles or via a feedreader, this content has been stolen and used without permission.

Saturday, October 30, 2010

Weekend Cooking: Merry Halloween!

Instead of giving out this for Halloween ....

... there was almost a chance that we'd have to give out this: 

So I'm grocery shopping this afternoon, and I head down the seasonal aisle to pick up our Halloween loot, and ... nothing. 

Well, next to nothing.  The shelves were practically bare. Sold out was the sale item I sought (a bag of 100 pieces of Hershey goodness for $9.99).  Only a few cardboard bins of Butterfingers, Snickers, and KitKats remained. 

That's because room needed to be made for the Christmas candy taking its place - in particular, the candy canes.  Box after box after box of candy canes in all their peppermint splendor. 

The shelves were being cleared of all things Halloween before Halloween had a chance to begin! 

Now that is scary.

I didn't think the employee stocking the shelves would be too thrilled with my taking his photo, even surreptiously, as he cleared away all things fun sized.  But trust me, candy canes are good and plenty on this Halloween Eve in my neck of the woods. 

Which made me wonder ... could I really get away with giving out candy canes for Halloween?  I mean, what if I had procrastinated curtailed our sugar consumption waited one more day to purchase our treats?  Had I waited until the witching hour of tomorrow, there might have been a good chance that I would have been handing out candy canes tomorrow night.  (Or tonight, as the case may be.  Apparently some communities are trick or treating tonight.  There was actually a notice in our paper specifying that Halloween would be held in the township on October 31, as if this was a question.  If you ask me, it's kind of sacreligious to have Halloween on any day other than October 31.)

Very Halloweird.

Merry Halloween, everyone!

Weekend Cooking is hosted by Beth Fish Reads and is open to anyone who has any kind of food-related post to share: Book (novel, nonfiction) reviews, cookbook reviews, movie reviews, recipes, random thoughts, gadgets, fabulous quotations, photographs. If your post is even vaguely foodie, feel free to grab the button and link up anytime over the weekend. Please link to your specific post, not your blog's home page. For more information, see the welcome post.

copyright 2010, Melissa (Betty and Boo's Mommy, The Betty and Boo Chronicles) If you are reading this on a blog or website other than The Betty and Boo Chronicles or via a feedreader, this content has been stolen and used without permission.

Stepping Into It

The weight of uncertainty seems particularly heavy tonight.

I don't know whether it's because of uncertainties of global events like the ones today's news cycle brought, or the uncertainty of this Great Depression II that seems permanent, or the personal economic uncertainties in this house.  Or some combination of all the above, which is most likely.

(Before our mothers call and text us, we're generally fine. There's nothing new that you aren't already aware of, just more writing on the proverbial wall, this time in a Sharpie marker by Ebenezers who have no concept of how their words and ideas affect others, how what was thrilling for one adventurous child will be a living fucking hell for one living in the structure of Aspergers, and how their actions can reopen childhood scars.)

* * * *

Wonder Woman boots at the Hip Hip class tonight.
We got pedometers at work yesterday, courtesy of our benefits company. I love it, and I've become a little obsessed with checking my steps and calories burned.  I'm way too sedentary; working at home will do that to you quickly, and I've thought about trying to walk a little more in the mornings, while the autumn weather is still conducive to doing so. 

There was a situation this week that makes you question someone's humanity and if they ever had any.  The kind that makes you question everything, really.  I'm probably not the only one wondering what is going to happen. 
We are not superheroes.

The company with the duck commercials came into our conference room and did their job well by making me worried about short-term disability, long-term disability, accidents, cancer, and every disease listed on the exclusions page that I don't think I have but that - who the hell knows? - could be lurking.  If I mention sciatica on the blog, does it mean that it is pre-existing?

Hip Hop class.

* * * *
Betty is in a play this fall at the same theater company where Boo was in two productions.  She's passionate about performing, has no qualms about being on the stage, is kind of a natural ham.

It's Haunted Family Night Out at the theater tonight, and her cast is performing a number or two from their show.  A preview of sorts, a dry run for the real thing in a couple weeks. 

I sit in the audience and I watch her dance as one of the Seven Dwarves (she's Happy) and I worry about next semester's tuition for her lessons that she loves, if it is something that will still be able to remain in the already-tight budget, if we will be here. I cannot stay in the moment, cannot embrace it as much as I want to and that makes me even sadder.  I don't know how to do that.  I always have one foot in tomorrow.

We watch a sampling from an improv class, and I'm in awe of these incredible kids (it's a teenage improv comedy troupe) and their sheer, raw talent in this small theater. I'm in awe of their passion for their art, for their ability to allow it to sweep them away from their own uncertainties.  I want some of that.  I'll have what she's having, thank you. 

After the performance, there are mini-lessons to sample.  Betty tries Beatles Rock Band, then a drum lesson to be more like Ringo.  A singing lesson with a young man whose voice is Grobanesque.  A few bars on the piano, a few strings on guitar from a guy who looked like the ghost of George (as in Harrison).

And then the dancing.  Betty samples a hip hop class.  Moms are invited to try a mini-Zumba lesson.  I surprise myself by stepping out of the hallway where I've been peeking in and stepping into the room. The mirror doesn't lie; I am uncertain and uncoordinated, my daughter woefully embarrassed.  I'm not sure this is for me. Yet there is something about it where I can see how people might like it, how it might help relieve some of the uncertainty and stress.  Not to mention cholesterol and pounds.

The pedometer on my hip silently moves upward, forward, counting out stepstepstepstepstep as I zumba through 10 minutes of what is for me some of the most intense movement in many a recent year.  Betty goes back for another hip hop class, this time standing next to a girl whose moves are liquid confidence.  I am watching someone who will be someone, I think. Someone who likely already is and I don't know it. 


"She's so good," I remark to the mother standing next to me, videocam in hand.

"She never stops," she replies.  "She is always moving. Always."

copyright 2010, Melissa (Betty and Boo's Mommy, The Betty and Boo Chronicles) If you are reading this on a blog or website other than The Betty and Boo Chronicles or via a feedreader, this content has been stolen and used without permission.

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Book Review: Shadow Tag, by Louise Erdrich

Shadow Tag
by Louise Erdrich
HarperCollins Publishers
255 pages

Intense.  That's the only word that can describe the last three and a half hours of my life, because I just spent that chunk of time reading Shadow Tag.  

Yes, all of it.  In one sitting.

It's a rare book that I pick up after dinnertime, finish at 10:30, and promptly turn on my laptop because I have to do something with all this ... this ...  whatever.  Clearly, Shadow Tag has rendered me momentarily speechless.  (Part of that is because I never, ever saw the ending coming and I'm kinda reeling here.) 

This is, as I said to The Husband, "the most intense (there's that word again), creepy, sad, and bizarre book that I cannot put down because it is so incredibly well-written." 

Shadow Tag is the story of a family (parents Irene and Gil, and their three children Florian, Riel, and Stoney) where each member is slowly becoming unraveled by the dysfunctional and emotionally abusive (and at time physically abusive) relationship between Irene and Gil.  When she discovers that her husband has been reading her diary, Irene loses what little trust is left between them.

This sounds innocuous, but what might be a forgivable act for another couple on stronger footing becomes the impetus for further deception - an "I'll get him" mentality.  Irene begins to deceive Gil by intentionally fictionalizing her diary entries - while hiding her real diary in a bank's safe deposit box and writing her true feelings in the closet-like room provided by the bank for privacy purposes when transferring items to and from the box. 

Make no mistake, Gil's not blameless here.  He's a painter whose main subject for years has been Irene, usually forced to model for him in degrading and humiliating ways.  By capturing her on the canvas, he has imprisoned her - and her image - in a way that only a cold-hearted master of abuse could justify.

"You are an unlucky thirteen years older than me. But here is the most telling thing: you wish to possess me. And my mistake: I loved you and let you think you could." (pg. 18)

"She had to shed the weight of Gil's eyes," she thinks. "The portraits were everywhere. By remaining still, in one position or another, for her husband, she had released a double into the world. It was impossible, now, to withdraw that reflection. Gil owned it. He had stepped on her shadow."

As incredibly well written as this book is (and oh my God, it absolutely is!), I cannot imagine reading this if I was in the midst of an abusive relationship or a divorce or some such traumatic situation, or if I was still dealing with the many issues from such.  It is not a pretty book. At times it is downright painful. Erdrich gives her reader two very strong, well-defined characters and prose that glides off the page, but the stark pain that is evident throughout this novel doesn't give the reader many reasons to smile.

Shadow Tag, like all of Louise Erdrich's books that I've read, is layered with symbolism.  This is set in the modern day, and there is mention of Irene and Gil's youngest child being born on September 11, 2001.  He was born at the "beginning of the end," which is in reference to their marriage but in some ways, perhaps a reference to the beginning of the end of a way of life as we once knew it and took for granted?  With the main character's name being Irene America, and the reference to shadows throughout, it is interesting to think there is something more being expressed here.  I believe that is likely the case, as Erdrich is the type of writer where no syllable is wasted and every word is very much intentional.

Of Louise Erdrich's books, I've only read her short story collection The Red Convertible (which I reviewed here) and her novel The Painted Drum (see my review here) so I hardly consider myself an expert on her work.  But I know what I like in a book - strong writing, solid characters, a story of substance - and I can say with all certainty that Louise Erdrich has now earned a spot on my favorite writer list.

And of the three books of Louise Erdrich's that I've read, Shadow Tag is the most disturbing - but from a literary perspective, it is an absolute triumph and thus far, my favorite of her works.

I read this and wrote this review back in August (I know, that's how many reviews I have stashed in Drafts for a "rainy day") but if you're looking for a creepy kinda book for this Halloween weekend, this one would certainly suffice.  It's also fitting because as October draws to a close, it's a good reminder that this is Domestic Violence Awareness Month and that every month should be one where we learn the signs of domestic abuse and know how to seek help for ourselves or someone in need. 

What Others Thought (Did I miss your review?  Let me know in the comments.)

Lisa from Books on the Brain

The New York Times
Washington Post

copyright 2010, Melissa (Betty and Boo's Mommy, The Betty and Boo Chronicles) If you are reading this on a blog or website other than The Betty and Boo Chronicles or via a feedreader, this content has been stolen and used without permission.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Wordless Wednesday: Homework Commentary

One of the worksheets that I found in my son's school folder this evening. 

#7 Have you heard the riddle about a chicken crossing the road?  - millions of times and I don't like it. 

(This is the easiest Wordless Wednesday post I've ever done.  Almost feels like cheating.)

copyright 2010, Melissa (Betty and Boo's Mommy, The Betty and Boo Chronicles) If you are reading this on a blog or website other than The Betty and Boo Chronicles or via a feedreader, this content has been stolen and used without permission.

Book Review: Louisa May Alcott: The Woman Behind Little Women, by Harriet Reisen

Louisa May Alcott: The Woman Behind Little Women
by Harriet Reisen
A John Macrae Book, Henry Holt and Company
362 pgs.

Aside from her being born in the Germantown section of Philadelphia (Louisa has such the spirit of a Philly girl!) and that her family was connected with influential leaders of the Transcendentalist movement and Unitarian religion, I admit that I didn't know much about Louisa May Alcott beyond her most well-known books. And even with that, Little Women is the only book of Alcott's that I've read.  (My grandparents bought it for me for Christmas when I was 11. I still have the gift tag with my Mom-Mom's handwriting in the front cover and it still makes me cry because I miss her, even though she's been gone six years.)

Well, now that I've finished Harriet Reisen's incredible biography of Louisa, I want to read all of her work, immediately. One of the "take-aways" from this biography is that Louisa poured so much of her life (as well as that of her family and acquaintances) into her writing.  I knew that was true with Little Women, but I didn't realize that was true with her other novels, plays, and short stories.  I also never realized how diverse of a writer she was; in addition to her stories for children (and creating a "brand" - the actual term used in the biography - for herself as such), Louisa also wrote "thrillers," poetry, fairy tales, pulp fiction, and more. 

For Louisa, reading and writing was one of the constants (along with acting in her original plays) during an unstable and uncertain childhood.  The Alcott family moved frequently (by the time she was in her mid-20s, Louisa would have lived in thirty different homes!) and they were often deeply in debt and in poor financial straits. Louisa and her three sisters often went hungry when they weren't dining on meals of bread and water, along with the occasional apple.  (Later in life, when she realized success as a writer, she philanthropically supported causes that helped orphaned and hungry children, along with women's suffrage and temperance.)

Bronson Alcott, Louisa's father who she shared her birthday with, was a unconventional teacher, philosopher and thinker who considered neighbors Nathaniel Hawthorne, Henry David Thoreau, and Ralph Waldo Emerson among his best friends (and indeed they were ... Emerson often helped the family financially).  However, Bronson often prioritized his "work" as an intellectual thinker over providing food for his growing family, believing that "Providence would provide."  (Reading Reisen's biography made me feel somewhat annoyed at Mr. Alcott, as on more than one occasion he seemed oblivious to the fact that his wife and daughters were starving while he was having Conversations about ideas with other thinkers.) 

As perturbed as I was with Mr. Alcott, I was absolutely intrigued with Louisa's mother Abby. Clearly, she is the inspiration for Marmee in Little Women, for this woman comes across as a saint. It was Abby who went to her wealthy brother to appeal for money or took in sewing or even a foster child.  She was resourceful, devoted to her children, strong and resilient, and did everything she could to keep her family fed and clothed.  (It's easy to say that she should have left Bronson, but in the mid-19th century, that wasn't exactly often done.) 

In these pages, biographer Harriet Reisen brings Louisa to life in a way that her readers may have never known. Almost every paragraph has at least one quote (and usually several) from Louisa via one of her letters, journal entries or other writings, so much so that at times this biography feels more autobiographical. It reads like a memoir or even a novel in terms of its pacing, and that only adds to the strength of the book.  (I happened to listen to chapter 9 and part of 10 on audio and felt that something was lost in the audio version, which is narrated by Reisen.  I think it might have something to do with the frequent inclusion in the text of Louisa's quotes, thus making it difficult to distinguish between Louisa's words and Reisen's. As much as I enjoy audiobooks, this one is definitely better in print.)

As to be expected, Reisen provides her reader with much reference, analysis, and summary of Louisa's vast writing.  Again, I had no idea that her body of work was so large and also so diverse, and as mentioned, I want to read all of it now.  (And I want to do so with Louisa May Alcott: The Woman Behind Little Women beside me as a reference point. I borrowed this copy from the library, but this is definitely a book I would like to own.) 

It didn't happen overnight, but by the time she was in her mid-30s, Louisa's writing became the catalyst (the "providence" that would provide) for the Alcott family finally being able to get out of debt permanently (it would take the family an entire decade to pay off the medical bills from daughter Lizzie's illness and eventual death) and Little Women was written as somewhat of a contingency on the publication of one of her father's writings.  Little Women's success was immediate and enormous, bring Louisa the wealth and fame she'd long craved, as well as a financial a stable means of supporting her family. (She subsidized sister May's artistic pursuits in Europe, during which she was friends with the same cast of characters - Degas, especially - that I recently read about in Claude and Camille!  I just love when my reading overlaps like that.)

The Little Women phenomenon also ushered in a downside.  There was intense demand for more of Louisa's writing (which affected her health and exacerbated what may be believed to have been manic-depressive tendencies), and pressure from being constantly recognized (and the need to occasionally go incognito). It's easy to see the beginnings of our celebrity-obsessed culture in the public's clamoring for more, more, more of Louisa and her books.

I've always been interested in Louisa May Alcott, but this book has earned her a spot on my favorite author list.  In addition to being an admirer of her work, it is easy to fall in love with Louisa as a person, complex as she was.  She has many qualities that I identify with and see in myself, and I think that's such a big part of her charm and why she is beloved by so many. There is a part of Louisa, of Jo March, in all of us.   

Louisa May Alcott: The Woman Behind Little Women is a truly remarkable book and a must-read for anyone who loves Little Women (or literature in general). A tribute to one of America's most beloved authors, this book doesn't disappoint and is indeed a treasure and a triumph.  (This review is based on the hardcover edition.  The paperback edition comes out today!)

What Others Thought:

A Work in Progress

At Home with Books
(Alyce mentions a similar thought as I had with this biography, which is that I wished it had photos. I agree.  Harriet Reisen replied to this on Alyce's blog by mentioning that there are photos at  Apparently the publisher nixed the idea of including photos in the biography. (Can't say that I understand or agree with that thinking, but whatever ... at least they are there on the website.)

Random Jottings of a Book and Opera Lover

Margot from Joyfully Retired is hosting the All Things Alcott Challenge - which you can still join (I just did!) since it goes until December 31, 2010.  I'm a little late in signing up but this is a pretty low-key challenge.  Even if you just read this biography, you've met the Challenge!  (And after my raving about how wonderful the book is and the others saying the same thing, you know you want to.)

copyright 2010, Melissa (Betty and Boo's Mommy, The Betty and Boo Chronicles) If you are reading this on a blog or website other than The Betty and Boo Chronicles or via a feedreader, this content has been stolen and used without permission.

Monday, October 25, 2010

A Halloween Treat

It started a few years ago, when my mother-in-law wanted to see her grandchildren dressed in their costumes on Halloween, but logistics became too cumbersome for her to drive to two different houses in one chaotic evening.

Hence, the birth of what is now known as Mom-Mom's Halloween Party.  I think this year's event (which was held on Saturday) was either the 4th or 5th Annual Halloween Party.

It consists of activities, games, food, and of course, desserts and candy.  

The kids started by painting pumpkins (this is my almost 8 year old nephew's pumpkin) which would then become the centerpieces for the buffet table.

Betty's painted pumpkin masterpiece.

Our 2 year old nephew was a puppy.

"Freeze Dance" was one of the activities. 
I hit a different setting on my camera by mistake and the photo turned out
like this ... which I think is kind of cool.

Halloween Bingo was one of the games my mother-in-law had planned. 

She also got a pinata in the shape of a pumpkin and filled it with little toys like Mardi Gras beads, yo-yos, and other things ... and completely forgot the candy.

Dinner was "mummy dogs" (hot dogs wrapped in dough), baked beans, vegetable lasagna, salad, and breadsticks.

We brought these Halloween sugar cookies, as baked by my super-talented friend who owns

There can never be too many desserts. We had a cupcake tower (including several pumpkin whoopie pies by Michelle), the sugar cookies, a chocolate cake, and pumpkin pie.

Dunking a cookie into my coffee. Boo got a kick out of a cookie being named for him (and yes, he did ask where the Betty was).

Thanks again for making Halloween such a special treat, Mom!

copyright 2010, Melissa (Betty and Boo's Mommy, The Betty and Boo Chronicles) If you are reading this on a blog or website other than The Betty and Boo Chronicles or via a feedreader, this content has been stolen and used without permission.

Sunday, October 24, 2010

The Sunday Salon

It is a nothing-to-do, nowhere to be type of Sunday that comes on the heels of a busier-than-usual Saturday, making it completely justifiable to still be pajama-clad on the couch at 2:30 in the afternoon.

I'm catching up on blogs, The Husband is watching our Eagles, and the crockpot is cooking this week's Sunday soup (Slow Cooked Broccoli Soup with Garlic and Olive Oil), Hopefully I'll have a chance to read some of what will be my 60th book of the year (Come to Me, Stories by Amy Bloom).

Yes, indeed ... Come to Me marks a record number of books for me.  We're at that time of the year when we start to see our reading year start to crystallize in terms of records set and challenges met, which is always kind of fun.  I've finished five of my Reading Challenges so far (Women Unbound, Support Your Local Library, All Things Alcott, Essay Reading, and my own Memorable Memoir Challenge).  Considering I signed up for a ridiculous number of challenges this year, I'm pretty pleased.

This has been another great reading week.  Earlier this week I finished Jane Mendelsohn's American Music, which I'm now recommending to EVERYONE.  I absolutely loved this. I'm not sure if it actually is a book that will appeal to everyone, but that doesn't matter ... I just think more people should read and experience the wonder that is this one. 

I also started and finished Heather O'Neill's debut novel, Lullabies for Little Criminals, one that I hadn't heard of until I was browsing in the library stacks.  This is a Harper Perennial book, and while not quite as strong as some of the other HP novels I've read, this is very good.  It's about a 12 year old girl named Baby (her real name) who is neglected by her 25 year old father Jules (yeah, do the math) and falls victim - despite her resistance - to the lure of street life.  Very sobering and kind of gritty. 

My audiobook is still Judith Warner's incredibly well-researched We've Got Issues: Children and Parents in the Age of Medication. It's hard to say that I like this - because it isn't the sort of book you enjoy - but I think that Ms. Warner is doing a tremendous job presenting the facts and stories of real children and parents in connection with what is such a controversial and hot-button issue for so many. 

I've read several of Amy Bloom's short stories before in various anthologies, but never any of her actual books.  That's being remedied by my being three stories into Come to Me.  "Sleepwalking" is my favorite so far.  It's the sort of story where you can see so clearly what is going to happen, yet you're surprised when it actually does. 

Now I'm off to catch up on some blogs and see what you're up to today ....  

copyright 2010, Melissa (Betty and Boo's Mommy, The Betty and Boo Chronicles) If you are reading this on a blog or website other than The Betty and Boo Chronicles or via a feedreader, this content has been stolen and used without permission.

Saturday, October 23, 2010

Another Trip Around the Sun

Our family room, 7:23 a.m. this morning.
 Playing on The Husband's laptop as I start this post: "(Love Is) Thicker Than Water" by Andy Gibb.  Prior to that, Neil Sedaka's "Calendar Girl."

It's like a 60s and 70s flashback weekend here in my kitchen at 7:15 a.m., a morning that finds me blogging after being awake most of the night.  The culprit was a too-late afternoon coffee (damn you, Starbucks Iced VIA!), resulting in cascading thoughts as the hours ticked on.

In the pre-dawn light of the guest room, I look at what are over a dozen scrapbooking boxes containing printed papers and photos - and worry that I will never finish all of this (one of my fears is that I will die without my kids' childhood's undocumented), consider whether I should start a Scrapbooking Saturday sort of feature on the blog to hold me accountable, decide that I don't want another "project," think that if I cut down on the blogging and the reading I might get some of the scrapbooking done.  I don't want to do that - cut down on anything - except for the clutter in the house, which has been bothering me lately. 

I've been making a concerted effort with this lifelong albatross of mine this week. A third of the den is semi-straightened up; a pile of magazines, headed to the great recycling bin in the sky with my guilt of not finding a more deserving, worthy home for them.  Gone yesterday were several Child magazines (is that even still published?), some of the more recent additions, back when I still held to the fantasy that my version of motherhood would resemble that portrayed in the glossy pages.   I feel guilty about tossing the magazines in the recycling - I paid good money for these words of wisdom from parenting experts and Oprah and people promising to make my life Real Simple.

A friend's news in the evening just past conjures up ghosts and acronyms long buried; I wake up to the news that a jeweler in my transformed childhood neighborhood was fatally shot, and even though I didn't know him, I mourn him because I know I walked past his store countless times en route home to my still-best friend C.'s house after a long day of 4th grade, back when two 10 year old girls could safely walk up Rising Sun Avenue in Northeast Philly.

My parents, who would have been married exactly 45 years today, went to the same high school with the jeweler, who stayed in the neighborhood out of loyalty to his longtime customers who "needed his services."  Alphabetically, he was a student or two behind my mother's maiden name. Maybe a widow would need a watch repaired, he is quoted in the paper as telling his insurance agent.

Later on today we will go to my in-laws' annual Halloween party for the grandchildren. It feels impossible that a year has passed because we were just there a week ago for the same event. I sit here in the family room, watching the sun make its pattern on the wall, a morning show that you can watch this in real-time as it happens. I'm normally not awake at this hour to notice it and when I am, I forget to watch.

Today, I watch. 

Our family room, 7:45 a.m. this morning.

"Another run around the sun,
Look at the things we've seen.
What have we both become?
What have we dreamed?
Who have we lost?
And what have we won?"

Ben Taylor, "Digest"

copyright 2010, Melissa (Betty and Boo's Mommy, The Betty and Boo Chronicles) If you are reading this on a blog or website other than The Betty and Boo Chronicles or via a feedreader, this content has been stolen and used without permission.

Friday, October 22, 2010

Weekend Cooking: Fish Chowder

Weekend Cooking is hosted by Beth Fish Reads and is open to anyone who has any kind of food-related post to share: Book (novel, nonfiction) reviews, cookbook reviews, movie reviews, recipes, random thoughts, gadgets, fabulous quotations, photographs. If your post is even vaguely foodie, feel free to grab the button and link up anytime over the weekend. Please link to your specific post, not your blog's home page. For more information, see the welcome post.

It feels like I am cooking my way through Stephanie O'Dea's wonderful cookbook, Make It Fast, Cook It Slow: The Big Book of Everyday Slow Cooking.  It has become one of my go-to cookbooks for whenever I'm using the crockpot, which happens at least twice a week around here.  

It's taken awhile, but I've become a convert to the concept of meal-planning.  It is amazing how much smoother and less stress-filled cooking has become as a result ... but that's another post.  This particular Fish Chowder was on the docket for one of our weeknights, and Wednesday was the perfect gray and drizzly day to have this simmering in the crockpot.

Plus I had all the ingredients on hand, so that was even better. 

(You see that Squeeze Garlic in the middle there?  I could kiss the person who came up with this. That, my friends, is the best idea ever.  I'm not much of a fan of chopping and mincing garlic.  This is the same stuff that comes in the jars, but only in tube form.  Maybe this has been around forever, but I just noticed it at the farmer's market last week.) 

Anyway ... the ingredients for the Fish Chowder.

8-10 baby potatoes, diced
1 cup frozen roasted corn (I used a bag of regular ol' yellow frozen corn)
1/2 white onion, chopped
1 handful baby carrots, chopped (didn't have)
3 celery stalks, chopped (hate celery, so none appeared in my chowder)
3 cups chicken broth (I used vegetable broth)
3-4 garlic cloves, chopped (as I was saying about the Squeeze Garlic ....)
1/2 tsp black pepper
1/4 tsp. Old Bay seasoning (they were giving out packets at the Yankees-Orioles game we attended in September at Camden Yards, so I added it)
kosher salt
1 cup heavy whipping cream
1 pound white fish, cut into cubes (frozen OK) (I used tilapia)
2 cups frozen shelled fully cooked shrimp
parmesan to garnish (the book doesn't mention this, but the website does, and since my kids will try anything if it is coated with parmesan, I added it)

Use a 4 quart slow cooker. Put the vegetables into your stoneware. Cube fish, and add - it's okay if it's still frozen. Plop everything else on top except the cream and shrimp.  Cover and cook on low for 8 hours, high for 4 hours, or until the potatoes are tender.  Stir in the heavy cream and shrimp 20 minutes before serving, and turn the slow cooker to high.

My notes:  We liked this one enough, but I would make some changes next time.  I didn't have enough fish or shrimp on hand, and in hindsight, I should have halved this recipe.  But I didn't think about that until I was in the middle of chopping potatoes and adding corn and garlic and Old Bay to the crockpot and that's when I realized that I needed more fish.  I also think a thicker fish would have been better, or maybe the addition of scallops. 

I served this with ciabatta bread and salad. We had extra chowder, so I used it as a sauce for the following night's dinner and served it over pasta shells. 

copyright 2010, Melissa (Betty and Boo's Mommy, The Betty and Boo Chronicles) If you are reading this on a blog or website other than The Betty and Boo Chronicles or via a feedreader, this content has been stolen and used without permission.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Links I Liked

It's been awhile since I treated you to some great finds that I've come across along the blogosphere.  Some of these are more than a month old, but they're still well worth the read.  Enjoy.

We're appalled at how other countries treat their women, yet we're not much better here in the United States, says Queen of Spain Blog in this post, Let He Who is Without Sin.

If you're an executive director of a nonprofit organization or work for one, this post from Nonprofit University Blog ("Saving the Sector") might be a wake-up call ... or validation that you're not alone in feeling this way.

Speaking of calls, what the hell was up with Ginni Thomas (wife of Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas) calling Anita Hill and asking her to apologize for what she did 20 years ago?  PunditMom has a theory (and it's one I agree with) with her post, "Excuse Me, Virginia Thomas.  You Have That Anita Hill Apology Thing Backwards."

MoxieLife's post on not being included resonated with me for ... well, for several reasons this week. 

And so did Egghead23's post ("Misty Watercolored Memories") about finding an old photograph.  (As well as her post on living life in - or out? - of 3D.)

Susan Senator gives a theory of hers (and one that I agree with) about the concept of theory of mind in her post "Theory of Mine."  Perhaps a different way of thinking about how those with autism think.

There are food bloggers and then there are ... those of us who should probably leave the food blogging to others.  Kablooey, dear friend that she is, falls into the latter category with this hilarious post "Why I'm Not a Food Blogger."  I promise you'll start laughing as soon as you see her adorable Moochie's perplexed face.

I know I've been yammering on about the upcoming elections in our state, so I have plenty of motivation to vote on November 2.  But those of you who might be having a ho-hum kind of election year might need some convincing as to why this is important ... so who better to get motivation from than the incredible, amazingly gifted Carly Simon (yes, the Carly Simon) who offers some up some in her blog post.

copyright 2010, Melissa (Betty and Boo's Mommy, The Betty and Boo Chronicles) If you are reading this on a blog or website other than The Betty and Boo Chronicles or via a feedreader, this content has been stolen and used without permission.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Book Review: Reasons for and Advantages of Breathing, Stories by Lydia Peele

Reasons for and Advantages of Breathing
Stories by Lydia Peele
Harper Perennial
189 pgs.

Pick an adjective, any adjective. Something like breathtaking, exquisite, incredible, moving, phenomenal.  Every single one of them is apropos to describe Reasons for and Advantages of Breathing, Lydia Peele's collection of what are eight superbly crafted and engaging short stories

Where in the world has Lydia Peele been my entire reading life?  She's quickly become one of my favorite authors, just on the strength of this collection alone.  (This is her first book.)  There isn't a weak story among them; they are all wonderfully crafted.

I was browsing in the library stacks when I spotted this one, having never heard of Lydia Peele.  It was only when I took it off the shelf that I realized it was a Harper Perennial book, which instantly made it a must-read for me.  (If you're not following Beth Fish Reads' feature on the Harper Perennial imprint, you are missing some great book suggestions.  So far, all of the HP books I've read have been stellar.)

The best way I can convey how lyrical Peele's writing is within these stories is to let her words speak for themselves (which will make this a long post for a short book, but I think and I hope you'll find it is well worth it for the incredible writing alone).

The jacket copy describes "Mule Killers" as a story that "evokes the end of an era and of a grandfather's dreams when he decides to replace animal power on his farm with tractors." But it is also about what happens between a father and son when certain decisions need to be made.

"My grandfather stares hard at my father's knee and is quiet a long time.

'You done her wrong,' he says. Repeats it.  ' You got no choice but to take care of it.  You done her wrong.'

In those days this was my grandfather's interpretation of the world: A thing was either right or it was wrong. Or so it seemed to my father, and he was getting tired of it. 

'No, sir,' he says, lips tight.  'That's not what I intend. I'm in love with someone else.' He takes a breath. 'I'm gonna marry Eula Parker.' Even as he speaks her name he is startled by this statement, like it is a giant carp he has yanked from the depths of the river. It lies on the step before both of them, gasping.

My grandfather looks at him with sadness rimming his eyes and says quietly, 'You should've thought of that before."

"Phantom Pain" is about a taxidermist who is getting used to the idea of a different sort of life, one with a prosthetic leg, one with a wife who has left him, and one where the land he has known for a lifetime is changing, and where reported and imagined sightings of a cougar (a panther? a mountain lion? reports vary) are traumatizing a town.  Phantom pain takes many forms, as we realize in this story.

There are several kinds of "Sweethearts of the Rodeo." In this story, two teenage girls work on a horse farm during a coming-of-age summer where they learn about riding and caring for ponies, but also about the true motives of their boss and the wealthy women who visit him under the pretense of riding their horses. 

"I watched your hand grope out from under the blanket, reaching toward his. And I saw him hold it. He held it with both hands. Of course I was jealous, and still am. You must still have that scar to remind you of that summer.  I have nothing I can point to, nothing I can touch."

"The Still Point" is the story I would choose if I had to pick just one favorite of all of these.  Peele shines in this story with every single element, but most especially of her descriptions of carnival life, which is the life that a still-grieving-twin brother has known for many years. You truly feel as if you are walking down the midway of a state fair (and in the shoes of the narrator, who sells "antiques" at the fair) by reading Peele's prose. 

"The people come, as they always do. In spite of the heat, the humidity, the exhaust-colored sky, they come dropping coins and car keys, yanking kids along by the wrists, eating funnel cake with their eyes on the Ferris wheel, their dogs locked in hot cars. I sit behind the table and watch them, the same faces making the rounds, hell-bent like they're searching for something. It's always the same, everywhere. I watch boys and men clamor in Dub's tent, T-shirts in their fists, throwing their money at him. I hear the clang of the bell at the Test Your Strength booth, the shouts of the barkers, hollers from the rickety Tempest, screams from the Gravitron every time the floor drops. The bleeps and buzzes and techno bass beats of the games.  Eyes pass over my table and move on, looking for something bright and new.  A hot air balloon rises on the horizon, hovers red and stark against the steel-gray sky.  People stop to point it out to one another, causing traffic jams on the paths.  Something about it makes me uneasy.  It looks like it has come to judge us."

No, I changed my mind.  The title story "Reasons for and Advantages of Breathing" is my favorite.  (I found myself saying this with each story in this collection and finally decided to give up trying to choose a favorite.  Kind of like choosing a favorite kid.)  This one, about a woman in the early stages of accepting that her husband has left her, probably permanently and not without some accompanying dyfunction and emotional abuse, strikes up a friendship with a herpetologist at a local university. 

"Most nights, I don't sleep.  Instead I lie in bed and page through my list of dread and regret, starting with my childhood and ending with the polar ice caps. Everything in between I file into something like schoolroom cubbies, marked with labels like DISASTER and DESIRE. When my husband left, he told me he hadn't been happy in years.  Happy? I thought.  We're supposed to be happy? I was under the impression that no one was truly happy, given the raw materials we have to work with in this life."

And this gorgeous bit of prose, after she helps the herpetologist euthanize a snake:  "All night, I lie awake in the light of the bedside lamp, studying my hands. What was it, exactly, that I felt pass out of the snake? The one thing I know for certain: I've witnessed a slight parting of the curtain that hangs over the unknown. By morning I feel a bloom of gratitude for this, which I wear, a bright badge, pinned to my chest for days."

Have I sold you on these short stories yet? Seriously, they are so good. These passages are truly the tip of the richness of Lydia Peele's writing in these stories.  If I haven't convinced you, read on.  If I have, consider these next three an appetizer sampler for your main literary course.

"This is Not a Love Story" was a love story, once upon a time, or so the mother who narrates the story once thought. It's now a story of being haunted by one's past, even as it is right in front of you.

"It is a reckless venture, motherhood.  I know you can't hang onto them forever, but it's downright crazy when you think about it: you take such good care of them - you trim their tiny fingernails so carefully when they are babies, you make sure they drink their milk and eat their vegetables and look both ways before crossing, you minister to every scrape and bruise, and then they turn eighteen - that's it - you just turn them out into the wilderness."

And these: "When people talk about the South being haunted, it's true. But it's not the places that are haunted, it's the people.  They are trapped by all the stories of the past, wandering a long hallway lined with locked doors, knocking and knocking, with no one ever answering. No one ever will. That's the thing about the past. The closest you can get to it is stories, and stories don't even come close."

"Kidding Season" is about a kid named Charlie from Red Bank, NJ who travels to what he believes is the promised land of opportunity on the Gulf Coast following Hurricane Katrina.  En route, he stops at and begins working on a farm, tending goats owned by a woman named Lucy. This story, like so many of these, has elements of Flannery O'Connor in them (which could explain why I love them so much). 

And finally, "Shadow on a Weary Land," which is probably my least favorite of all of them (but hey, one out of 8 isn't bad!) It's about what happens to the residents of a town when the land around them is being developed for new homes, and their elusive quest for fortune and fame. 

I know many people aren't as fond of short stories as I am. But if I had one collection to offer as a reason to give this genre a try, Reasons for and Advantages of Breathing would be it.  There are many reasons and many advantages to indulging in the work of Lydia Peele.  Speaking for myself, I'm hoping I won't have to wait much longer to feast on more.

What Other Bloggers Thought:

Book Club Girl
Largehearted Boy

Wordless Wednesday

Yankees vs. Orioles
Camden Yards, Baltimore, MD
September 18, 2010

Click here for more Wordless Wednesday photos.

copyright 2010, Melissa (Betty and Boo's Mommy, The Betty and Boo Chronicles) If you are reading this on a blog or website other than The Betty and Boo Chronicles or via a feedreader, this content has been stolen and used without permission.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Scaring Up Some History

A church on the same street as my kids' school.
Taken during their Halloween parade,
October 2009.
With Halloween upon us, one of the most frightening things out there these days is the Senate race in my state.

I've written about it before, and you're all smart enough to figure out the who's and where's of which I speak.  I'm just not naming names or places because frankly, I don't want the search hits and I really don't want to be connected in any way, shape, or form with someone who needs to ask questions like these:

"Where in the Constitution is the separation of church and state?"

That was, apparently, a source of confusion this morning by the Senatorial candidate from my state, who uttered this very question at a debate this morning.  A debate, mind you, that was held at a LAW SCHOOL.  You can read the whole article right here.

When she was instructed in these basic tenets of American History 101, the candidate appeared to be genuinely surprised.

"You're telling me that's in the First Amendment?"

This is not a media-manufactured gotcha moment. This is some scary shit, people.  Some downright scary shit. 

And even scarier is the fact that some are quite happy with - and hell-bent on - the notion of sending this woman to the Senate. 

copyright 2010, Melissa (Betty and Boo's Mommy, The Betty and Boo Chronicles) If you are reading this on a blog or website other than The Betty and Boo Chronicles or via a feedreader, this content has been stolen and used without permission.